Image courtesy Tony Snipes

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Flights of Fancy

Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company’s alternative history takes off.

Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company’s alternative history takes off.

While gravitational displacement technology may seem like a scientific impossibility, artist Tony Snipes swears this technology not only exists, but that it’s been a mainstay of the Portsmouth Shipbuilding industry since the 1940’s.

For the past couple of years, Snipes has been building out the fictional world that surrounds the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company, with its majestic flying vessels, through his Facebook page. There, he posts paintings, sketches, and models of massive airships that resemble Naval vessels.

“The goal of the project has been, first of all, to do a kind of tribute to my hometown, Portsmouth, Virginia, and its Naval and shipbuilding history, but then to put a little bit of that sci-fi spin on it with it being something like an alternate history version of what may have been going on at the shipyards in the 1940’s,” Snipes says.

Snipes, who now lives in South Carolina, said he draws on inspiration from his time spent growing up in Portsmouth to create scenes that help his viewers “escape the mundane one image at a time,” as the Facebook page’s mantra goes.

Portrait of the artist as an alternative history PR man. (Image by Tony Snipes)

Snipes pointed to three key events that altered the course of history in his imaginary timeline: The first being that Abraham Lincoln survived his assassination attempt, the second being that Nikola Tesla was declared the victor of his long-battled inventor rivalry with Thomas Edison, and the third being the inexplicable survival of one of the Titanic’s designers, who in our timeline, went down with the ship.

In character, Snipes works for the fictional shipyard as a public relations officer. In this way, Snipes said he can connect the viewer to the time and place of the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company and provide a window into his world.

Snipes says he interacts with every department at the aeroshipbuilding company, from management to the engineers to the riveters. One of his primary responsibilities is inviting guests to the facility to consult on aeroship design and construction. One such group has often been the Tuskegee Airmen, he said.

Snipes also organizes social events for the people working at the shipyard. Hangar parties are held regularly to let the staff unwind to performances by jazz icons of the day like Ella Fitzgerald, he said.

Image by Tony Snipes

While these parties may not truly have the guest lists they advertise, Snipes uses them as an opportunity to provide historical information about important figures of that time. When someone notable “visits” the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company, Snipes lets his viewers know who’s coming and what contributions they’ve made to history.

Snipes’ focus on real-life African-American history through his art is reflected in the unique social atmosphere that surrounds the aeroshipbuilding company.

“They’re looking for experts, they’re looking for talent, they’re looking for the expertise, and it doesn’t matter what color that person is,” Snipes said, describing the company’s hiring standards.

In Snipes’ universe, the botched assassination attempt allowed Lincoln to oversee a more effective reconstruction era. As a result, the effects of the Jim Crow era on the American South were greatly diminished. Fast-forward to the 1940’s and you have a diverse working community, dedicated to bringing the best in gravitational displacement technology.

“There are women and African-Americans from that era who have done great things and I’d like to use this as an opportunity to put a spotlight on it,” Snipes said.

Pictures from the Aeroshipbuilding Company consist mostly of digital painting over photography. Having been drawing and painting his whole life, Snipes said he likes to start with an open shot of a cloud-populated sky and manipulate the color and lighting. From there, he’ll bring the levitating vessels into view, layer-by layer in photoshop.

Image by Tony Snipes

The drawings of pilots, however, Snipes usually does by hand with a few digital enhancements. Some of the pilots he’s depicted were modeled after his daughters, he said.

Snipes currently works in digital marketing, and while he left his hometown for his career about 20 years ago, Snipes said he tries to reconnect with the city when he can and makes it back to Portsmouth at least once a year for Thanksgiving.

“In fact, if I do have the time, I’ll often drive downtown down High Street just to see how things have picked up and grown,” he says.

Snipes recalled the time he spent down by the public library during his formative years in Portsmouth.

Image by Tony Snipes

“Before there was Google, that would be my Google,” Snipes says. “I would go and look up stuff, and imagine, and check out books and really kinda’ help to brainstorm and get my imagination going with my artwork.”

Recent developments in the city have given Snipes an optimistic outlook towards the future of Portsmouth.

“From my perspective—from the outside and not living there anymore—there’s some potential for it to even beat its heyday,” Snipes says. “I’m feeling good about the way things are going.”

Image by Tony Snipes

The people of Portsmouth have taken notice of Snipes’ project and many have been eager to show their admiration, he said.

“The maritime industry—the port of Virginia specifically—is investing a lot within the local economy,” Snipes says. “I just started learning more about that because they just started following my artwork and my project,” he said.

The Port of Virginia has been supportive of Snipes’ project, even asking for his collaboration on a few creative efforts of their own. In January, Snipes was invited to an event at the Children’s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth to share his blend of imaginative and educational material.

Snipes has also taken his work to the comic convention scene, showcasing the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company’s fleet this year and last at SC Comicon, one of the larger conventions in South Carolina.

Having attended most years since SC Comicon began in 2014, Snipes said he was good friends with the convention’s manager, Rob Young. Though Young had long encouraged Snipes to present his work at SC Comicon, he didn’t want to show up with something generic and so, Snipes waited until he felt he had something worth sharing.

“This was my first time, at least for that type of comic and pop culture convention, bringing my own artwork there,” Snipes said. “I think it’s the right project and the right time to do it.”

These days, Snipes pushes to expand the world of the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Company and celebrate the men and women who worked there.